Pet Corner: Herbs for Horses

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Herbal remedies can be extremely effective for horses.
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Herbal remedies can be extremely effective for horses.

When I was a kid, barely able to walk, my grandpa used to hoist me up on one of the team of Belgian horses he used to pull the plow and the wagons across his fields. Yellowing photos of those days show me with an ear-to-ear, gap-toothed grin, perched nearly spraddle-legged, atop Grandpa’s “mountain horses.”

As Grandpa’s gruff gees and haws moved the horses around the fields, I sat there, a death grip on the hames, and absorbed horse essence. Horse sweat stained my pant legs, the gentle sway of plodding horse became one of my inner rhythms, and I absorbed the odors of the workaday horse. Horses have a special kind of essence all their own–as do each of the various species of animals, really. But, horse essence is the forceful and spirited energy of warrior-nature, counterbalanced by a rhythmically permeating serenity. Horse “medicine” is an energetic that, to my way of thinking, perfectly matches with the powerfully balancing, calming, and healing effects of herbs.

As part of a total holistic package of health and healing, I’ve found that herbal remedies are extremely effective for horses. Before we get started matching herbs with horses, however, here are a few tips to help with your matchmaking.

The power of pastures

If I had only one piece of advice I could give to all horse owners, it would be: “Let them be horses!” Natural horses are nibblers, grazing in the protective company of their buddies in the herd. Given a quality grazing space, horses can provide for their nutritional needs. And if you’ve let the pasture be a natural pasture (and haven’t overcrowded the horses), the horse will also be able to find most, if not all, of its health needs in the weeds (herbs) of the fields.

Important herbal weeds I’d expect to find in a natural pasture might include dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), plantain (Plantago spp.), mullein (Verbascum spp.), cleavers (Galium aparine), chickweed (Stellaria media), nettles (Urtica dioica), chamomile (Matricaria recutita), and any of the mints (Mentha spp.). And don’t forget that alfalfa (Medicago sativa) and red clover (Trifolium pratense) also have medicinal properties.

The right dose

Remember that horses are nibblers, and it may not appear that a horse is getting much of the herbal offerings from the fields when in fact it is. I’m convinced that herbs can be extremely effective in minute, almost homeopathic doses. This is certainly what I see clinically–patients often respond to herbal doses that are far below what would be considered by the biochemists to be an effective dose of the “active” ingredients. A few nibbles of a variety of herbs, then, may be the perfect herbal antidote for most of what could possibly ail the horse.

So, a horse is a much easier patient to work with than Fifi, the poodle that has never tasted anything besides bland commercial dog food. Simply serve a horse his medicines in the field. Or, if your pasture is herb-deficient, sprinkle the needed herbs over your horse’s daily grain or hay ration. A common dose might be ¼ to ½ ounce of the dried or fresh herb, given once or twice a day to a fully grown horse; but again, I don’t think dosage is as important as just getting the herbs to the horse. For the reluctant muncher, you can disguise the tartness of herbs in a piece of apple.

External wounds. There’s no better treatment, bar none, for cuts, scratches, and abrasions than herbal remedies. Calendula (Calendula officinalis), yarrow (Achillea millefolium), aloe (Aloe vera) and lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) can be used as a tea (spritzed directly onto the wound), an ointment or oil-based product, or as a poultice.

Because herbs are so easy to use with horses, it’s a simple next step to apply the medicinal properties of the herbs for each of the organ systems. Examples include the following.

Immune-system balancers and detoxifiers. No matter what the problem, you can expect better results if you include herbs such as echinacea (Echinacea spp.) or astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus) to help balance the immune system. In addition, herbs to assist in the body’s natural ability to detoxify are always a good idea. Liver-helper herbs include milk thistle (Silybum marianum) and turmeric (Curcuma longa).

Respiratory disease. With most horses being housed in overcrowded lots where they are fed dusty (and often moldy) hay year-round, it’s no wonder that many develop respiratory problems. Mullein is my favorite herb to aid the respiratory tract. Feed the dried leaves along with the daily portion of grain or in the hay mix.

Gastrointestinal. Horses, especially those that are stressed, overfed, and under-exercised, are prone to intestinal upset. Slippery elm (Ulmus rubra) is an excellent choice for mild belly upsets. Its mucilaginous properties coat the intestinal wall, easing irritation. Slippery elm is especially good for the competitor with the nervous belly–give 1/2 to 1 ounce before transporting and then another dose or two thirty to sixty minutes before the competition.

Calming herbs. The horse, in its natural state, is a prey animal whose primary defense consists of living in a herd of watchful companions who can all run at the slightest hint of a nearby predator. Imagine the daily stress we put on a horse when we coop him up, alone in a pen where he doesn’t have the space to run away from predators, imagined or real. Then compound this stress by asking him to compete against other horses in a strange arena. It’s no wonder horses respond so well to calming herbs.

Calming herbs for horses include kava (Piper methysticum), valerian (Valeriana officinalis), and chamomile. Oats (Avena sativa) is a nervine, and as such, “feeds” the nervous system, especially under stressful conditions.

Note: If you are going to take your horse to a competition, check with the certifying agency of the event before using any herbs. Some herbs have been banned from various competitions, and their presence in the horse’s system may result in disqualification.

Arthritis and parasites. A considerable portion of my practice deals with various forms of arthritis, and I am constantly asked which herb I’d recommend for worms.

Acupuncture and chiropractic are my main “medicines” for arthritis, because I haven’t found herbs to be especially effective by themselves. I do think that glucosamine, either alone or along with chondroitin and/or MSM, is often helpful. And I continue to try herbs that are supposed to be helpful for arthritis–boswellia (Boswellia serrata), yucca (Yucca spp.) and yellow dock (Rumex crispus)–although I’m not convinced they do much good for animals.

And unfortunately, I haven’t seen any really effective herbal cure for an ongoing infestation of worms in horses–unless the herbs are being used as a part of a total holistic package.

So, I can’t truthfully say that herbal remedies are the answer for all problems. But, when used properly–not as silver-bullet cures, but rather as aids to balancing organs and systems–then they are as effective for horses as they are for other species.

Randy Kidd holds doctorates in veterinary medicine and veterinary and clinical pathology. After practicing traditional veterinary medicine for ten years, he opened Honoring the Animals, a holistic practice in Kansas City, Missouri.

Information provided in “Pet corner” is not intended to replace the advice of a qualified veterinarian.

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